Pointing the Trees in the Right Direction

It isn’t always easy to watch trees come down during a thinning, but Paul and Peggy Butler are getting better at it the second time around.

Their 80-acre property, which is FSC®-certified through NNRG, is nestled along Pants Creek and borders Capitol State Forest near Olympia. It’s in the midst of a commercial thinning of 16 acres this month, and despite this being the second harvest in his forest, Paul Butler says the experience still manages to surprise him.

“It’s always a shock to see a lot of trees go down, but one of the things that makes it easier is looking at the parts that were harvested in 2010 and replanted in 2012,” says Paul. He adds that those 7 acres are looking healthier, and are developing into a more mixed-age class forest.

A shot of one of the 2010 harvest areas, in 2019. Photo by Paul Butler.

Paul views each harvest as a learning experience. After the 2010 thinning, the Butlers replanted thousands of seedlings in sites of varying shade and sun levels. Now Paul says they have a good sample size by which to judge the shade-tolerance of the seedlings they plant this time around.

“I learn something new about the forest just about every time I walk into it,” says Paul, a former geology professor at the Evergreen State College. He and Peggy have made their forest an educational environment for students.

Interns from Evergreen visit the forest and get hands-on experience in various forest stewardship activities, including light thinning, replanting, monitoring, and protecting seedlings from browsing by deer.

The forest is a place for them to conduct projects that pique their curiosity. “Evergreen’s 1,000-acre forest reserve is very hands-off in terms of stand manipulation, so I think providing an area for students to experiment like this will be useful.” And occasionally, other Evergreen faculty bring classes on field trips to the forest.

Paul teaches hands-on ecological forestry in his forest to visiting students from Evergreen State College. Photo by Matt Freeman-Gleason.

This year’s harvest will remove some of the dead, dying, and broken-topped alders, cut out the trees in small patches of root rot, and reduce the stocking in a few areas where conifers are growing too densely on well-draining soil. Paul calls it a ‘worst-first’ thinning, which means the smaller, unhealthier trees are taken out and the healthiest, biggest, and legacy trees are kept.

A recently thinned section of the forest. Photo by Paul Butler.

Peggy and Paul have thought a lot about the future of their forest. When they replant the thinned areas this time around, they plan to experiment with species more likely to weather the hotter, drier summers ahead. “I don’t think we need to go all the way to Joshua trees,” Paul jokes—which conjures an amusing mental image of the Seuss-like trees alongside western redcedar and salmonberry—“but pine species, maybe including ponderosa.”

Andy Miller is the logger on the project. Paul hasn’t worked with him before, but it’s clear he’s pleased with the collaboration. “Andy’s incredibly patient and thoughtful. He’s always available to explain to me why he’s doing what he’s doing.” 

“We have some really good discussions.”

A truck loaded with alder saw logs ready to leave Butler Family Forest. Photo by Paul Butler.

The primary purpose of the thinning is not to make a profit, but this year’s yield will cover the cost of logging and some road improvement work. Some of the alder will go to Northwest Hardwood in Centralia. Some will go as FSC®-certified pulp to a mill in Tumwater, and the Douglas fir saw logs will go to Shelton. “The FSC®-certified pulp pays a little bit of a premium over the standard pulp prices. But we’re not really trying to maximize timber yield with this thinning,” says Paul. “Just set the forest up for the future.”

He goes on to explain that he and Peggy will be donating their land to Capitol Land Trust at some point in the future. “We never expected to be making money off of this land—it’s about the educational aspect, the personal satisfaction of making a healthier forest.”

Peggy tends to one of the Butler's bird boxes. In addition to creating bird habitat with these boxes, the Butlers maintain dozens of wildlife habitat piles throughout their forest.

For Paul in particular, it’s also a little bit about family history.

“My dad was a cabinet-maker, so I’m growing the trees he used to use for his profession. He actually used a lot of alder—such a versatile wood. Soft but straight-grained—takes just about any stain.”

“He always made three of everything he built—one for him, one for my brother and one for me.”

Pieces by Paul's father, Wes Butler, are on display and in use around the Butler home. Top left: a replica of a school clock. Top right: a small oak bureau. Bottom: a firewood storage box and cabinet made of pine.

After nearly thirty years of stewarding Butler Family Forest, Paul could probably string together a whole necklace from the pearls of wisdom he’s collected. One mantra he shares with students is, “Trust the trees. They’ll figure out which way is up if you just get them pointed in the right direction.” That captures ecological forestry in a nutshell. 

With this year’s harvest, Paul and Peggy Butler are giving their forest another bit of guidance.

Pockets of lush early-seral ecosystem can be found in previously-harvested areas of Butler Family Forest. Photo by Paul Butler.

Watch the video below, from 2017, to hear directly from Paul how his relationship with his woods has deepened over time and what actions he’s taking to make the forest healthy.

Header photo by Matt Freeman-Gleason.

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